David “Dan” Offord was founding
director of the Offord Centre for Child Studies,
Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry
and Behavioural Neurosciences at McMaster,
and one of the world’s leading experts
in child development and child psychiatry.
He was an outstanding scientist, a devoted
clinician and a passionate advocate of children
and youth, an extraordinary leader whose
work has had a profound influence on the
practice of child psychiatry and on mental
health research and policy across many continents.
His life and career stand as a shining example
of what can be achieved through the combination
of first-class scholarship and a practical
clinical concern for the wellbeing of all
children. With his modest and affable demeanor,
Dan was truly a “gentle giant” in
the field of children’s mental health.
Dan began his research career at the University
of Florida, which he followed with stints
at Pennsylvania State University and the
University of Ottawa, before joining the
faculty at McMaster in 1978 as associate
professor, Department of Psychiatry and
Department of Clinical Epidemiology and
Biostatistics. Here he discovered his real
research passion, child psychiatric epidemiology.
His work focused on children from disadvantaged
backgrounds who are at risk of leading
lives marred by low self-esteem, emotional
problems and lack of opportunity.
In the early ‘80s, Dan launched
the Ontario Child Health Study (OCHS),
a landmark study that reported the disturbing
statistic that one in five children has
a serious mental health problem. The study
remains one of the most important population-based
studies on children’s mental health
conducted anywhere in the last 30 years.
It has become a model for similar studies
in other countries and continues to fuel
groundbreaking research into the factors
that cause children to be “at risk”.
The OCHS, and the wealth of data it produced,
would become the catalyst for the creation
of the Canadian Centre for Studies of Children
at Risk at McMaster (later renamed in Dan’s
honour). Dan saw the Centre as an opportunity
to retain talented young scientists who
would continue to conduct leading edge
research into children’s mental health.
In what is surely his most enduring legacy,
the Offord Centre has grown to become one
of the world’s leading centres for
the scientific study of child emotional
and behavioural problems, highly regarded
in Canada and throughout the world for
the strength of its research and its commitment
to train future generations of scientists
to tackle the issues that have an impact
on children’s mental health and development.
Dan’s expertise in the area of disadvantaged
children and youth continued to earn him
international acclaim and deep admiration
from colleagues in Canada and around the world. He served 10 years
as a National Health Scientist, and was a member of the Premier’s
Council on Health, Well-being, and Social Justice (1991-95). He
became involved with the children’s mental health programs
of the National Institutes of Health in Washington, and was a member
of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Psychopathology
and Development. In 2001, he received the Order of Canada in recognition
of his work as a psychiatrist and his commitment to improving the
lives of children.
Yet Dan was most remarkable, not only
for his extraordinary accomplishments,
but for his “down-to-earthness”.
He loved sports, especially football. He
loved soap operas, and the simple pleasures
of life. Above all he loved to talk – about
research, about life and especially about
children. Children were his passion, and
the highlight of every year was the summer,
when he would return to Ottawa and his
job as director of Christie Lake Camp,
a camp for disadvantaged children. It was
this real-life experience that grounded
his research and clinical practice and
reinforced his belief that the right supports
delivered early in a child’s development
can enrich the life quality and life chances
of our most vulnerable children.
Dan was devoted to his family – his
wife, Margaret; children, Karen, Michael,
Jennifer and Stephen; step-children Caroline
and Janeen Parkin; and his first wife,
Sondra, who died in 1992. Those he leaves
behind – his family, his colleagues,
the children he cared for so deeply – will
always remember him for his important contributions
to research and his contributions to the
lives of children everywhere.